Baha'i News -- An artistís family comes to visit Weekly Feature - 15 June 2002

An artistís family comes to visit

Leading New Zealand artist Robin White is looking forward to a different kind of family reunion this weekend, when a 30-year retrospective exhibition of her works goes on show at Aratoi. Now living in Masterton, she talked to HUGH BARLOW about the experiences that have coloured her palette.

Robin White

ROBIN WHITE says: My work emerges out of an engagement with the reality of life around me.”

MERCENARIES, missionaries and misfits: The three types, according to legend, who end up living under a palm-thatched roof on a Pacific Island atoll. At least, that’s what the island-dwellers like to say.

The story is told by artist Robin White and her husband Mike Fudakowski, who shifted to Masterton in 1999 after 17 years living the island life in Kiribati. They laugh at the prospect of being thought mercenaries and although it was their Baha’i faith that led them to Kiribati, Robin says the missionary tag is hardly fitting either.

Misfits? That option doesn’t get mentioned, which leads you to suspect it’s the one you’re supposed to settle on. But it’s hardly suitable either. After a career that saw her burst into prominence as part of Paremata’s Bottle Creek scene immortalised by Sam Hunt before shifting to Dunedin, then to Kiribati and now here, it’s clear that Robin White is the opposite of a misfit. She can fit anywhere, including smack in the middle of a Masterton suburb. So why Masterton and not one of the regions like Nelson or Coromandel with their well-established “arty” communities? “It would seem artificial to me to deliberately seek the exclusive company of other artists.”

So ordinary old Masterton it is, and for a very ordinary reason. Two of her three children were born in Kiribati – “far more enjoyable than it was in Dunedin, even if did mean having to chase the dog out of the delivery room” – and they had reached the age where education became problematic. A very close friend in Kiribati, who the children regarded as an aunt, had moved to New Zealand and married a Masterton man, and the children were sent over for schooling. Separation was a wrench and the parents soon followed.

As the children settled into a totally new environment, mum had to readjust and get down to work. In one sense, the domestic upheaval opened up professional opportunities. “I was coming back to place that was different, and of course I was different from when I left New Zealand,” White says. “In a way, I was coming back as an outsider; it was like arriving in a foreign land.”

She began looking into the history of the Wairarapa valley and was intrigued by the story of Featherston and its camps. Her father had fought in World War I so there was a “sense of connection” to the training camp that recruits passed through before being shipped to the trenches of France.

“But what really caught me was the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp,” she says. “I went to the heritage museum and looked at the artworks they produced. The art was the response of outsiders to that place and I was interested, as an outsider, to their response. “It became a gateway for me, to look through the eyes and thoughts of the men imprisoned there.”

More than a year of research and work has resulted in a haunting, 6m-long, 12-panel painting that captures the straw-coloured dryness of a classic Wairarapa summer and weaves through it Japanese elements that make the so-very familiar landscape seem oddly alien. A hawk flies high, making it easy to imagine the prisoners who White was told would spend summer days lying on their backs in the long grass watching the harriers soar freely overhead. It’s as if the work has emerged to act as a companion piece to the 17th century haiku poem on a plaque at the memorial to the camp: Behold the summer grass/All that remains of the dreams of warriors.

Japanese characters in the painting reinforce the feeling that this is an outsider’s view. “I wanted to include Japanese script because I wanted some element that could be seen but not understood,” White says. “Which in turn, I associate with events at the camp.”

She says she soon became aware the subject of the camp remains touchy with some people in the region but was not deterred from her exploration. Old wounds may remain, she says, but “there’s a human element that exists beyond all that. It is the commonality of humanity that interests me.”

It’s an interest that’s been with her her whole life. In 1948, when she was 2, her parents became the first couple in New Zealand to become members of the Baha’i Faith, a conversion that in part stemmed from her father’s World War I experiences. “In the trenches he could hear the German priests blessing the German troops in their trenches – that’s how close to each other they were – and that undid any belief he had in the church as an instrument to resolve conflict.”

Her father, Albert Tikitu White, a carpenter of Ngati Awa background, returned home from France convinced that war was no answer to any problem and became a committed advocate of peace. For the young Robin growing up in Auckland, the differences between her and school friends went far beyond the fact she lived in the only house in Epsom that had a huge kumara patch on which, she jokes, “I was the slave worker every day”. “It wasn’t really until senior school or art school that I felt more in tune with my peers,” she says. “I was brought up in a house surrounded by concepts and ideas that other kids weren’t familiar with. I was seeing and hearing things that were totally alien to other kids my age.

“My father loved education. The house was full of books. He loved history and knowing what was going on in the world – social changes, nuclear issues, peace issues ... these were the things that were talked about at the dinner table.”

Her father was a member of the Peace Council and White says she stills remembers vividly being taken to a council meeting when she was about 10 or 11. “They showed a film of Hiroshima, taken by somebody who went in straight after it was bombed. It was very raw, black and white film of the aftermath: There were people with flesh peeling off in strips, blind birds flying around crashing into things.” Again, not something many young New Zealand children were looking at in the 1950s. “I’ve had nuclear nightmares ever since. Those images still resonate.”

As well as being thankful to her parents for raising her in a climate of tolerance and social awareness, she appreciates the support they gave when she decided to pursue art as a career. It was a decision that had been looming since “an impossible age” – about 11 or 12, “I must have been showing a lot of interest in drawing and painting; someone gave me a book about art – how to draw, how to paint – and I remember reading that an artist always goes about drawing things and I decided that’s what I was going to do so I got myself a sketch book that I carried around.”

The earliest sketch she has comes from October, 1959 and is called “something like ‘the Coromandel Ranges from the Back Steps of Uncle Harold’s House’,” she says, laughing at the grandness of her 13-year-old self.

She pursued art at Epsom Girls Grammar under the tutelage of May Smith, well known in Auckland art circles, but a family move saw her at school in Raglan in the fifth form, where she found herself in an art class of one. “Then in the sixth and seventh forms I went back to Epsom as a boarder and was with May Smith again. It was she who ensured I followed a career path that would take me to art school. “I was very lucky to have parents who were supportive. Never did they give any indication that art was a frivolous career; quite the contrary: They were very excited about it.”

From 1965 to 1967 she studied at the Elam School of Fine Arts, where the tutors including Colin McCahon. The next year she enrolled at Auckland Teachers College. A meeting that year with Sam Hunt led her to Paremata, a teaching job at Mana College and a small cottage at Bottle Creek, where she stayed until shifting to the Otago Peninsula in 1971. That remained home until 1982 when she, Mike and their first child made the move to Kiribati.

For an artist, it was literally a change of scene – the familiar rugged New Zealand landscape was replaced by tiny atolls barely 4m above sea level; instead of a backdrop of hills and bush, there was a vast blue vista of sea and sky. White says she’s an artist who begins with what she sees and as she and her family immersed themselves in Kiribti life, that became the focus of her works.

A fire in her studio in 1996 made her even more of an island artist. “I lost all the tools of trade and the materials that I relied on. In Kiribati, you can’t just go down to the art shop and restock so I decided to carry on, relying only on what was available locally. I picked up the threads of ideas I’d been working on and continued with local materials.” The shift from canvas and print to traditional woven textiles was not straightforward.
“I had no skills in weaving so I had to work collaboratively.” She enjoyed the experience, and has since repeated it with a series of works in tapa done in conjunction with a Fijian friend.

“What interests me is the space between cultures and the points where they meet, where overlap and integration can happen,” she says.

Works from the islands feature prominently in the touring retrospective exhibition that opens this weekend at Aratoi. It has been curated by the Hocken Library in Dunedin, which owns many of White’s works, and includes others from private and public collections, and was shown at Porirua’s Pataka gallery as part of this year’s New Zealand Festival.

Masterton is the second stop on the exhibition’s tour. Aratoi director Richard Arlidge says the fact White lives in the town helped Aratoi jump the queue – Palmerston North, Wanganui, Napier, Oamaru and Dunedin have to wait – and wouldn’t have come to Masterton at all had it not been for the new gallery. He says he’s delighted to be hosting it, saying that to see 30 years of work in one space is to truly appreciate the marks White has left on her artistic journey.

“There is a narrative quality to her work that has endured,” he says. “And when you get them together, you realise just how personal her stories are and how by reflecting her experiences, we can all see how we’ve all moved over time.”

For her part, White views the exhibition as a “family reunion”. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to see such a widely representative group of my artworks in one place at one time, and I see a dialogue between them. There is definitely a family gathering feeling – although they are all different, there’s a genetic stamp.”

©Copyright 2002, Wairarapa Times Age

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